Bill would allow Colorado school districts to sue State Board of Education

Students work on laptops in a darkened room. They’re sitting at long tables. One boy’s face is lit up by the glow of his screen.
Students at Rose Elementary in the Adams 14 district work on their laptops during a literacy class. The district sued the State Board to block outside intervention. (Helen H. Richardson / The Denver Post)

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A bill introduced in the Colorado legislature would allow school districts to sue the State Board of Education when they disagree with decisions related to the school accountability system. 

The proposal would put a check on the State Board’s ability to intervene in schools and districts that report many years in a row of low student test scores. It comes as the Adams 14 school district is engaged in an extended legal fight to block a state-ordered reorganization process. 

Supporters of the proposal, including groups representing superintendents and school boards, predict lawsuits would be rare but say they deserve some legal recourse when they disagree with the State Board. Opponents fear it will slow down efforts to improve education and put complex policy issues in the hands of judges who don’t have the expertise to handle them.

Senate Bill 71 would allow school districts to appeal any rule, regulation, or final order of the State Board related to the accountability system. It is scheduled for a hearing before the Senate Education Committee on Monday.

State Sen. Jessie Danielson, a Jefferson County Democrat sponsoring the bill, said most state agencies are subject to judicial review, and the State Board should be as well.

“The situation involving Adams 14 involves concerns that the State Board is intruding on local control and constitutional rights,” she wrote in an email. “Why shouldn’t Adams 14 or every other local school district in the accountability system be entitled to a court’s review of a State Board’s order?”

The State Board opposes the measure, with members saying lawsuits would delay improvement plans that could help children who already have waited too long. 

“By and large, we’ve been very successful in assisting districts to move forward academically,” board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, said. “When the district works with the department, we’ve had extraordinary success. I think it’s in the best interest of the children that the present system be preserved, and this bill be defeated.”

The State Board of Education is an independently elected body that oversees the state accountability system, among other duties. That includes administering standardized tests, rating schools and teachers on their performance, and ordering changes in schools and districts with persistently low performance. There is no appeal process after the State Board rules.

In most cases, the State Board approves improvement plans developed at the district level, but it has ordered schools to turn over some or all authority to an external manager, often a consultant or private company. The State Board also has the power to close schools, convert them to charter schools, or order the reorganization of an entire school district. 

That’s what happened in Adams 14 last year. The process could result in schools closing or parts of the district being absorbed by its neighbors, but that seems unlikely. Neighboring districts, which have representatives on the reorganization committee, have pledged their support for the district, and any big changes would require voter approval. 

Nonetheless, Adams 14 officials say state orders have been deeply disruptive, harmed their ability to hire teachers, and intruded on the authority of local elected officials. 

Last year, a Denver district court judge dismissed Adams 14’s lawsuit challenging the state order, saying the law doesn’t allow for judicial review. The district is appealing.

Joe Salazar, a former legislator now serving as attorney for the Adams 14 school district, could not be reached for comment on the bill. 

Organizations that support Colorado’s test-based accountability system such as Stand for Children and Democrats for Education Reform oppose the bill, as do groups representing charter schools. Brenda Dickhoner of the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado said the bill poses “grave concerns.”

“It’s incredibly broad in scope and would allow districts to bring a lawsuit forward and challenge anything under the accountability act,” she said. “It’s not helpful or productive.” 

State Board members fear the bill could leave open to judicial review everything from state ratings to grant awards to the thresholds used to determine whether students meet expectations on standardized tests.

But Bret Miles, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, which represents superintendents, said locally elected boards need some recourse when they disagree with a State Board ruling. He believes school districts would only sue about things that matter a lot. 

“There is no reason we shouldn’t have that opportunity, but it will be sparsely used,” he said. “It would take time and money and resources.”

Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at emeltzer@chalkbeat.org.

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